“ Genre: Drama / Theatrical Release: 2002 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Thaddeus O'Sullivan / Actors: Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams, Paul Bettany, Eleanor Bron, Luke Newberry ... / DVD released 2003-10-06 at Twentieth Century Fox / Features of the DVD: PAL „
Based on Rosamond Lehmann's novel, "The Echoing Grove", this 2003 drama set in pre and post war Britain, centres on the lives of two upper class sisters, the bohemian painter Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) and the conservative housewife Madeline (Olivia Williams), and their shared love interest, Madeline's husband, Rickie (Paul Bettany). In 1934, following the death of their father, Dinah is invited to stay with Madeline and Rickie at their grand London home. Madeline and her mother are both embarrassed by Dinah's free-spirited approach to life and arrange for her to settled down and marry a foppish suitor. However, this is not to be as Rickie covertly tells Dinah to call the marriage off. This leads to their secret affair and a trouble love triangle that will end in tragedy...
Helena Bonham Carter's reputation as an actress was carved out of period dramas. They were usually of the Jane Austen era and no doubt played on the strength of her legitimate aristocratic bloodline. Carter's social advantages, including her vast inherited wealth, are normally accepted as what would typically hold a person of genuine talent back from any form of critical acclaim. However, she has largely proven any would-be detractors wrong. Carter not only has genuine if quirky star appeal, but has also impressed critics with her ability to act in a variety of roles. Much like regular co-mega star, Johnny Depp she actively pursues unusual and less than flattering roles. Of course, the pair of them nearly always work together under the watchful eye of Carter's no less famous director husband, Tim Burton, where they conjure up gothic re-imaginings of famous stories for a mainstream audience. Given that her apprenticeship in period flicks has been well and truly served, her unique image appeal and acting ability established, one ponders why she would consider taking on something like this low-key early-to-mid-twentieth century drama. Her inclusion certainly benefits the viewer and no doubt will have increased the film's saleability, but I am not sure whether it's the best of deals for Carter.
The trouble is "The Heart of Me" really owes its appeal to Carter's charismatic performance and it is on her strength alone that it is worth watching. She is quite correctly casted as the troublesome yet more colourful sister in this love triangle. Like Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" her personality mitigates much of her wrongdoing and easily makes her more appealing than her rival. We cannot help but have more sympathy for her than her otherwise innocent but prudish and cold sister. However, this coldness quickly translates to blandness when Carter isn't around. I appreciate that is all about the old English preoccupation with their supposedly reserved nature, observations of tradition, sexual repression and obsession with appearances over everything else. However, it's hardly new territory and I think the point is laboured to the point that it can make for some dull viewing.
The storyline falls quite awkwardly between unashamed melodrama and a thoughtful meditation on the restricting conventions of relationships. If you were after the former I would say that you could do a lot worse than "Bitter Moon", which juxtaposes Hugh Grant's stereotypical Englishness, and if you want the latter the latest rendition of E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" does a much better job. For that matter, if you want to see an interesting English love triangle picture with plenty of twists then I recommend "The Disappearance of Alice Creed", which I recently reviewed.
Having said all this, "The Heart of Me" isn't a bad film. All three of the main actors were nominated for their performances by two of the smaller film festivals with Carter and Williams bagging awards. Roger Ebert was impressed and even batted back criticism he felt was largely prejudice against the fact that the all main characters were upper class English people. The settings are picturesque and it will probably appeal to fans of . The depictions of the conventions of the time are believable if the themes running through are a little cliched. There is enough in the story to keep you interested even if two thirds of the main cast are a small counterbalance to one.